About this Issue

What were the religious beliefs of the American founding generation? What can these beliefs tell us about the relationship that the founders intended between Church and State? And between each of them and the citizen?

A few simple, overstated arguments are probably quite familiar: On one side, It’s argued that the founders were influenced by the Enlightenment, with its skepticism about revealed religion and its reliance on human reason apart from revelation. But certainly not all of the American founders thought this way; many of them were quite orthodox in their religious beliefs and did not intend in any sense to create a secular or nonreligious republic. 

Our lead essayist this month is Professor Mark David Hall of George Fox University. He argues that while it’s tempting to apply the label “deist” to the American founders, it at best applied only to a few of them; many were, insofar as we can tell, entirely orthodox in their Christianity. Joining him to discuss will be Professor Steven Green of Willamette University, Professor Thomas Kidd of Baylor University, and noted author Brooke Allen of Bennington College. Comments will remain open for one month, and readers are invited to discuss and ask questions.

Response Essays

A Republic Needs Virtue—But What Kind?

I believe that Dr. Hall is conflating two quite different questions in his essay: first, whether the United States had a Christian founding, and second, whether the majority of the founders were, like the vast majority of the population at that time, believing Christians. The answer to the second question is obviously yes. But that doesn’t mean the republic had a Christian founding, and Dr. Hall’s assertion that God’s absence from the text of the Constitution is a “trivial” point is quite untrue. The omission was deliberate, as the writings and correspondence of Madison, Hamilton, and Jefferson clearly indicate. It was also blatantly radical: a sovereign nation with no established religion was something new on the face of the earth, a cause for wonder.

Dr. Hall has put the founding in philosophical context but not the wider historical context, which is all-important. “Enlightenment ideas indisputably had some positive influence,” he allows, “but a more important reason Americans embraced religious liberty was because of their Christian convictions.” No, no, and no! For there were Christians and Christians—though Dr. Hall writes as though the various sects formed a monolithic bloc. In fact, for more than two-and-a-half centuries—ever since Martin Luther posted his 95 theses—Christians had been torturing and slaughtering each other all over Europe. Bitter warfare in France, culminating in the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre of Protestants by Catholics in 1572, endured until the very end of the century, and recommenced, just as brutally, in 1685. It was still going on during deliberations over the American constitution. The Netherlands suffered 80 years of warfare before the Protestant provinces finally succeeded in detaching themselves from Catholic Spain. Germany and other parts of Central Europe were torn apart by the inconceivably savage Thirty Years’ War (1618-48), in which entire regions were devastated and the population of the area was reduced by 30 percent. Britain, closer to home for most American colonists, had seen Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries, Mary I’s persecution of Protestants, and finally the bloody Civil War (1642-51), in which Puritan parliamentarians took on Anglican royalists, divided the nation, and executed the monarch.

Needless to say, these events constituted no fine advertisement for Christian tolerance, and the founders recognized that some institutional guarantee had to be constructed to keep American Christians from tearing each other to pieces as the Europeans had done. The founders were reading Spinoza, yes; but they were also reading more recent philosophers whose works made a frontal attack on the hypocrisy of eighteenth-century Christians, such as Voltaire (Letters on England, The Philosophical Dictionary, Candide) and Montesquieu (Persian Letters, The Spirit of Laws). Indeed, the well-publicized meeting and stagey embrace in Paris between the elderly philosophes Benjamin Franklin and Voltaire was one of the great set pieces of the age. And the founders were students not only of recent events but of more distant history, too. They were terrified, and rightly so, of rivalry between different Christian sects breaking out into full-scale persecutions, as had happened throughout Europe, and designed the Constitution to preclude that possibility. Religion, wrote Madison, “has been much oftener a motive to oppression than a restraint from it,” and religious laws “will be found to leave crevices…through which bigotry may introduce persecution; a monster feeding and thriving on its own venom, gradually swells to a size and strength overwhelming all laws human and divine.” Years later, writing to Jefferson about the Protestant bigotry that had once more reared its head in the early years of the nineteenth century, John Adams expressed heartfelt gratitude for the founders’ wisdom and prescience in providing the Constitution’s Establishment Clause. “What a mercy it is,” he exclaimed, “that these People cannot whip and crop, and pillory and roast, as yet in the United States! If they could they would.”

Dr. Hall raises an interesting question in this essay when he suggests, in the first paragraph, that there is a connection between the Bible and liberty, between the Christian tradition and the founders’ program of expanding freedom. I have heard this claim before, and while no historian has ever explained it to me convincingly, it is impossible to write off the idea. Also: what is the significance of the fact that the Enlightenment itself grew from Christian soil? Are Enlightenment ideas peculiarly allied to a Christian sensibility or point of view? Reading Dr. Hall’s essay and his book, Did America Have a Christian Founding?, I again failed to find a coherent development of this theme, and in the lengthy perusal of the founders’ writings I conducted while writing my own book on the subject I did not do much better.

What about Dr. Hall’s contention that “with few if any exceptions, every founding era statesman was committed to the proposition that republican government required a moral citizenry, and that religion was necessary for morality”? This is unarguable, but many of the founders would not necessarily have claimed the Christian religion as the one indispensable system. As John Adams remarked, “Phylosophy looks with an impartial eye on all terrestrial religions.” When critics objected, of the No Religious Test clause, that it would enable a Jew, a Hindu or even “the Great Turk” to become president, the authors of the Constitution didn’t deny the possibility. But Dr. Hall has a valid point: many intellectuals of the era, though freethinkers, deists, or doubters themselves, thought that a strong civil society could be achieved only if the relatively unlettered populace adhered to a religious faith. No morality, in other words, without religion.

Jefferson, a card-carrying member of the radical Enlightenment, disagreed: the moral sense, he believed, was an inborn human trait. “If we did a good act merely from the love of God and a belief that it is pleasing to him, whence arises the morality of the Atheist?” he queried. “It is idle to say, as some do, that no such being exists.” But most of his fellow-founders understood that religious sentiments could have a positive effect on civic life. The example of Franklin, cited by Dr. Hall, is a most interesting case. Franklin’s cronies among the radical philosophes of Paris took him for one of their own—an unbeliever. And he may well have been. But his suggestion that each day of the Constitutional Convention be opened with a prayer was far more than mere rhetoric: the psychologically canny Franklin knew that the religious impulse is a force that under the right direction can bring unity as well as division. And besides, a daily dose of humility would do these gentlemen no harm.

Dr. Hall points out that 50-75% of Americans during the founding era were Calvinists, who “place special emphasis on what they refer to as the doctrine of total depravity” and “believe that even redeemed men and women continue to struggle with sin.” He goes on to suggest that it is this Calvinistic creed that inspired the founders to create our “constitutional order characterized by federalism, the separation of powers, and checks and balances.” But once again, “the founders” and “the American people” are not at all the same thing. The numerous founders who were imbued with Enlightenment ideas, while not necessarily denying the reality of sin and grace, had long been moving toward a Roman ideal of “virtue”—a civic rather than a theological concept. Montesquieu, the philosopher who most influenced the framers, wrote in The Spirit of Laws (1748) that different qualities were required of a populace under different regimes. A tyranny, he wrote, needs fear; a monarchy needs honor; a republic, critically, needs virtue. The virtue of a good citizen, that is: not necessarily that of a good churchgoer. George Washington, while no very enthusiastic churchgoer, was nevertheless widely recognized as the consummate virtuous citizen, in the antique mold: a man of deeds rather than words, of unshakable patriotism; a man who brought out the best qualities in his compatriots; a man who unhesitatingly gave up power when the time came and retired to private life.

How might this sort of virtue be fostered in the American citizenry? Through education; through national service, perhaps; through civic engagement and general participation in the political process, certainly. Through religious faith and church membership? Possibly—but not necessarily. Dr. Hall is correct when he writes that the founders “did not think that religion must be driven from the public square.” And they were right: look what happened in France when that was attempted—and in Russia! They finally agreed, though, that it should be a private matter between oneself and one’s God. In Madison’s formulation, “Religion and government will both exist in greater purity, the less they are mixed together.”

Deists, Orthodox Believers, and the American Founding

The faiths of the founding fathers is one of the most controversial historical topics in America today. Whatever the founders did, the thinking goes, is a guide for what we should do. Should faith influence on American politics? Or should we embrace a secular public sphere and make religion a private matter? Scholars and polemicists have taken a range of positions on these provocative issues. Mark David Hall makes a strong case here, and in his many books and articles, that faith played a powerful shaping role in the American founding, even if not every founding father was an orthodox Christian.

I am inclined to agree with Hall’s essay, but some perplexing questions remain unresolved. One of the most confusing issues regarding the founding fathers, as Hall notes, is how many of them were “deists.” Ben Franklin said he was a deist (or at least he was as a young man) in his Autobiography, so there was at least one of them! But the debate about deism runs into conceptual dead ends, partly because our classic definition of a deist doesn’t serve us well historically. The textbook meaning of a deist, as Hall notes, is a person who believes theoretically in God as creator but not in God’s providential role in human history. If we stick with that definition, then there were almost no deists in Revolutionary America, save perhaps for radical skeptics like Ethan Allen and Tom Paine. Even Franklin, Jefferson, and Adams, whom we can categorize as Unitarians (i.e. those who deny God’s Trinitarian nature), believed in God’s providential interventions in history, including in the American Revolution.

The problem is that people in eighteenth-century Anglo-America did not always use our textbook definition of a deist. Deist could mean a person who denied God’s providence, but it could mean other things as well. Sometimes it referred to a person who was critical of Reformed theology and its emphasis on humankind’s lack of free will. Or someone who did not believe that the whole Bible was the Word of God. Sometimes “deism” meant monotheism. Sometimes the use of deism had no skeptical connotations at all, such as when it was used as an antonym for “atheism.” Franklin and others rarely unpacked all those variant meanings, but it would have surprised few people in Revolutionary America to find that a “deist” also believed in God’s providence. Among the various “Enlightenments” of the era, the French Enlightenment tended to be the most radically skeptical, even producing some atheists. Advocates of the British-American Enlightenment, scholars now understand, were mostly friendly to theism, if not Christianity per se. Often British Enlightenment thinkers had a reformist agenda for institutional Christianity, such as disestablishing the official state churches, ending tests of faith for elected officials, or repudiating Reformed or Calvinist doctrines such as predestination.

Another reason that the founders’ faiths are elusive is that even the “deistic” founders, such as Jefferson and Franklin, knew the Bible and quoted it liberally. As Hall notes, George Washington, typically quiet about his own faith, loved to quote Micah’s peaceful image of the vine and the fig tree. This is a reference that might go over the heads of even many committed Christians today. As I showed in my book Benjamin Franklin: The Religious Life of a Founding Father, the bookish Franklin grew up in a Puritan home in Boston, and he had internalized much of the King James Bible by an early age. When you put together founders like Franklin and John Adams, they sometimes spoke in a veritable code language from the Bible, such as when Franklin complained to Adams in Paris that he was “quite sick of my Gibeonite office.” He did not need to explain further: the Gibeonites were the “hewers of wood and drawers of water” from the Book of Joshua. Franklin was tired of drawing “water”—French loans—for the United States.

Even Thomas Jefferson (the subject of my current book project) spoke and wrote constantly in biblical language. He and Franklin proposed that the national seal should be an image from the Book of Exodus. In Jefferson’s second inaugural address, he told Americans that “I shall need, too, the favor of that Being in whose hands we are, who led our forefathers, as Israel of old, from their native land [and] who has covered our infancy with his providence.” Was this just rhetorical posturing? Sure, but what presidential speech doesn’t entail posturing? Jefferson likely believed what he was saying. Similarly, Jefferson really believed that God had created all men equal and given them their inalienable rights. (What he meant by “all men” is hugely controversial.) That belief was arguably the most important theistic assumption undergirding the American founding.

Our debates over the personal faiths of a small group of Founders commonly fail to notice that the Founders changed their views over time, too. People like Jefferson and Franklin said a lot about religion and Christianity. No one quote can capture all their beliefs across their long lives. Franklin was definitely trending back toward his parents’ traditional faith (although he never got all the way back) when he made his almost solitary proposal for prayer at the Constitutional Convention. Jefferson similarly went through a radically skeptical phase as a young man. Then during his presidency Jefferson came to consider himself a Christian, at least of an ethical, Unitarian sort. In early adulthood Jefferson had become convinced that Christianity was too irrational to believe. But friends and mentors such as the English scientist and Unitarian pastor Joseph Priestley convinced him otherwise. Jefferson accepted Jesus’s moral teachings as the essence of Christian belief, and he set aside what he regarded as absurd theological abstractions such as the Trinity. This Christian commitment, as Jefferson understood it, helps explain why he composed not one but two Jefferson “Bibles,” or extracts from the Gospels. He was fascinated with Jesus and with the New Testament, and he even read the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible (the Septuagint) for edification.

Instead of trying to cram them into today’s partisan molds, we should simply let the founding fathers be who they were as religious thinkers of their time. They’re not carbon copies of public figures in America today, either on the left or right. In Franklin and Jefferson, we find providentialist deists and Bible-quoting skeptics. Understood in their context, their beliefs might offend both Moral Majority–style Christians and hardcore secularists. But they did operate in a world that assumed basic theistic principles, such as equality by creation. They reflexively carried those principles into America’s republican experiment.

No Higher Source than the Consent of the People

Almighty God hath created the mind free,” wrote Thomas Jefferson in 1779. “All attempts to influence it by temporal punishments or burthens … are a departure from the plan of the Holy Author of our religion.”[1] Expressing a related sentiment six years later, James Madison declared that it was “the duty of every man to render to the Creator such homage and such only as he believes to be acceptable to him. This duty is precedent, both in order of time and in degree of obligation, to the claims of Civil Society.”[2] Both statements, if taken at face value and out of context, could be interpreted as evincing the devout Christian faith of two seminal founders: the author of the Declaration of Independence and the “Father of the Constitution.” But that would be wrong.

Herein lies the dilemma (or trap) when people make claims about the religiosity of the leading members of the founding generation. They cull sentiments from the available writings—many being statements made for public consumption—to construct what is inevitably an incomplete picture. They then extract those religiously sounding statements and phrases to “fit” a particular Founder into a modern definition or category of Christian (or skeptic), usually assuming that there is an agreed upon definition of what it meant to be a Christian then, or what it means today.

Members of the founding generation existed within a culture imbued with manifestations of Christianity. Absent the small number of Catholics and Jews, all remaining Americans had been raised within the Protestant tradition (chiefly Calvinist). Christianity mediated many aspects of a person’s daily life (customs, holidays, public events) and his life-milestones (birth, marriage, death), affecting even those people who were non-communicate with a church. The most commonly available book—and the first book any household would possess—was the Bible. Its passages and stories—such as Moses leading the Children of Israel out of Egypt—were familiar to most people and its language informed public discourse. If a public orator—either clergy or politician—employed an analogy or metaphor, the likely source was from the Bible, as it would be understood by most people.[3]

The ubiquity of religious trappings during the founding period may lead one to conclude, as Professor Hall does, that Christian ideas significantly influenced the thinking of the founders in ways that impacted the founding documents. The first premise is obviously true, but it tells us little. To a man (and they were men), the founders were religiously literate; at the time, religious works constituted a substantial part of the curriculum at Madison’s Princeton (Presbyterian), Jefferson’s William and Mary (Anglican), and John Adams’s Harvard (Congregational). The personal writings and correspondence of Jefferson and Adams (Madison somewhat less) indicate that they thought a lot about religious matters (though not always deferentially).[4] That religion influenced the founders’ thinking, or that they used common religious terms in their writings, indicates little about their personal devotion or the degree to which they intended to incorporate Christian principles into the organs of government they helped create.[5]

The incidence of religious language and discourse among leaders of the founding generation more likely tells us something different. As public figures, they understood the power of religious rhetoric to motivate and inspire people. That public speakers used those familiar idioms is unsurprising—everyone did it, including that “filthy little atheist” Tom Paine, as Theodore Roosevelt called him.[6] One must not lose sight of the significant challenges—with the high likelihood of failure—that the founders faced in the last quarter of the eighteenth century. Both political and religious figures purposefully drew on Biblical types to legitimize their revolutionary and governing efforts. Political and religious leaders sought to score symbolic points by identifying America’s successes with divine providence; another favorite was to analogize Britain and King George to Egypt and pharaoh and the colonists to the Children of Israel (with George Washington as Moses, leading them to the promised land). This purposeful use of religious imagery served an important political purpose of anointing the struggle with a transcendent purpose. In light of the extraordinary times and the commonality of religious discourse, it would have been remarkable if the founders had not employed biblical terminology in their public statements.[7]

An undue focus on the religious upbringing of leading Founders, or on the religious discourse during the Founding, also undervalues the significance of Enlightenment rationalism and secular Whig political ideas on the founding generation. By the second half of the century, both strains of thought were significantly impacting the emerging ideas about revolution and republicanism.[8] The writings of figures such as John Locke, Baron Montesquieu, Hugo Grotius, and David Hume not only influenced the thinking of political leaders, they were adapted and integrated into the thought of clergy.[9] A review of the sermons of the period confirms that even orthodox clergy saw little conflict between contrasting ideologies and generously used Enlightenment discourse in their writings and addresses.[10] It is impossible to discount the influence of rational thought on the founding generation, including on the common people who read the political pamphlets and broadsheets that circulated during that era. Possibly the question should be recast from “How Christian were the founders?” to “How rationalist were the religious leaders of the founding period?”[11]

For these reasons, asking whether the founders were deists or conventional Christians asks the wrong question. It sets up a false binary inquiry, as if everyone fit into one category or the other. Few leading founders were true deists, and only Benjamin Franklin accepted that label.[12] But many accepted deistic ideas that challenged conventional Christianity, including denial of miracles, substitutional atonement, the resurrection, and the virgin birth—while maintaining affiliations with established churches.[13] But more significant than their actual beliefs, the founders established a new government based on secular rational principles. Locke, Montesquieu, and Hume were their reference points, not Moses or Calvin. While the drafters did not create a “Godless Constitution” in the sense of being hostile to religion,[14] the lack of any religious acknowledgement—the standard practice up until that time—demonstrates a conscious decision to base the authority for republican government on the consent of the people, not on any higher source. That broke with the prevailing practice, and its significance cannot be understated.[15]


[1] Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom (1779).

[2] Memorial and Remonstrance (1785).

[3] Nathan O. Hatch and Mark A. Noll, The Bible in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982); Daniel L. Dreisbach, Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 25.

[4] See generally, The Adams-Jefferson Letters, ed., Lester J. Cappon (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1959).

[5] Steven K. Green, Inventing a Christian America: The Myth of the Religious Founding (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), 130-153.

[6] Eric Foner, Tom Paine and Revolutionary America, rev’d ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 270.

[7] Ruth H. Bloch, Visionary Republic: Millennial Themes in American Thought, 1756-1800 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985); Nathan O. Hatch, The Sacred Cause of Liberty (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977).

[8] Also influential were ideas based on classical republicanism and Scottish “common-sense” rationalism.

[9] See Catherine A. Brekus, “The Evangelical Encounter with the Enlightenment,” in Turning Points in the History of American Evangelicalism, ed., Heath W. Carter and Laura Rominger Porter (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2017), 19-43

[10] See the various works reprinted in Political Sermons of the American Founding Era, 1730-1805, ed. Ellis Sandoz (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1991); American Political Writing during the Founding Era 1760-1805, eds. Charles S. Hyneman and Donald S. Lutz (Indianapolis: Liberty Press, 1983).

[11] Bernard Bailyn, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1967), 27-54; Bernard Bailyn, Pamphlets of the American Revolution (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1965).

[12] Benjamin Franklin, Autobiography, in Norman Cousins, “In God We Trust,” The Religious Beliefs and Ideas of the American Founding Fathers (New York: Harper & Bros., 1958), 24; Thomas S. Kidd, Benjamin Franklin: The Religious Life of a Founding Father (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017), 27-28.

[13] Green, Inventing a Christian America, 130-153.

[14] Isaac Kramnick and R. Laurence Moore, The Godless Constitution: The Case Against Religious Correctness (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1996).

[15] Green, Inventing a Christian America, 178-179.

Lead Essay

Proclaim Liberty Throughout All the Land: Christianity and the Creation of the American Republic

The Liberty Bell is one of the most prominent symbols of American freedom. It is inscribed with the words “proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all inhabitants thereof,” which are taken from Leviticus 25:10. In Did America Have a Christian Founding?, I contend that the connection between the Bible and liberty is no accident. America’s founders drew from their Christian convictions, and ideas developed within the Christian tradition of political reflection, when they created a constitutional order committed to protecting and expanding freedom.[1]

The book’s argument is, to put it mildly, controversial. Andrew Seidel of the Freedom From Religion Foundation asserts that the Bible and liberty are fundamentally incompatible.[2] Similarly, Matthew Stewart proclaims that the skeptical philosopher Benedict de Spinoza is the “principal architect of the radical political philosophy that achieves its ultimate expression in the American republic … ”[3] Both authors agree that America’s founders were deists who created a godless Constitution and desired the strict separation of church and state.

Far too many scholars make similar claims. For instance, the historian Frank Lambert writes that the “significance of the Enlightenment and Deism for the birth of the American republic, and especially the relationship between church and state within it, can hardly be overstated.”[4] University of Chicago law professor Geoffrey Stone likewise writes that “deistic beliefs played a central role in the framing of the American republic” and that the “Founding generation viewed religion, and particularly religion’s relation to government, through an Enlightenment lens that was deeply skeptical of orthodox Christianity.”[5] Even prominent Christian college professors such as Richard Hughes contend that “most of the American founders embraced some form of Deism, not historically orthodox Christianity.”[6]

In this essay, I argue that there is no good reason to accept the common claim that “many” or “most” of America’s founders were deists. Positively, I discuss different ways in which America’s constitutional order benefited from the founders’ Christian convictions.[7] I defend these positions at greater length in Did America Have a Christian Founding? and look forward to discussing them in more detail on the pages of Cato Unbound.

Were the Founders Deists?

No serious scholar disputes the fact that virtually every American of European descent in the founding era, with the exception of about 2,000 Jews, identified himself or herself as a Christian. Approximately 98 percent of Americans were Protestants, and the remaining two percent were Roman Catholics. But these facts are not particularly useful. These citizens may have been Christians significantly influenced by non-Christian ideas, or they may have been Christians self-consciously attempting to create a secular political order.

More interesting is the debate about whether the founders were orthodox Christians or deists. By “orthodox,” I mean that they adhered to fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith as articulated in the Apostles’ or Nicene Creeds. “Deism” refers to an intellectual movement that emphasizes the role of reason in discerning religious truth. Deists reject traditional Christian doctrine such as the incarnation, virgin birth, atonement, resurrection, trinity, divine inspiration of the Holy Scriptures, and miracles. The last point is critical; unlike most Christians, deists do not think that God intervenes in the affairs of men and nations.[8] In Alan Wolfe’s words, they believe that “God set the world in motion and then abstained from human affairs.”[9]

Popular authors and scholars who assert that America’s founders were deists inevitably support their claim by describing the religious views of some combination of the following men: Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Thomas Paine, Alexander Hamilton, and Ethan Allen. On occasion, they reach beyond this select fraternity to include another founder, and they usually concede that not all founders were as “enlightened” as the ones they profile.

There is no doubt that Jefferson, Franklin, Adams, Allen, and Paine rejected more than a few basic tenets of orthodox Christianity. Yet, to my knowledge, no writer has ever produced a public or private journal entry, letter, or essay showing that Washington, Madison, or Hamilton denied any basic Christian teaching. The case that they were deists is usually based on some combination of observations that they seldom used familiar biblical appellations for God or Jesus Christ, did not regularly attend church, chose not to become communicants, and/or did not always act in a moral manner.

Having an extra-marital affair as Hamilton did, or even rejecting the incarnation as Jefferson and Adams did, does not make one a deist if deism includes the idea that God is a “Creator or First Cause who subsequently stood aside from his creation to allow it to run according to its own rules.”[10] With the exception of Ethan Allen, all of the founders mentioned above often spoke or wrote about God’s intervention in the affairs of men and nations. If they believed such claims, then by definition they were not deists as the term is commonly defined.

To give just two examples, in the Constitutional Convention Franklin noted that “[i]n the beginning of the contest with Great Britain, when we were sensible of danger we had daily prayer in this room for the divine protection.—Our prayers, Sir, were heard, and they were graciously answered… the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth—that God governs the affairs of men.”[11] Franklin was the oldest delegate at the convention, and his proposal to open each day in prayer was seconded by Roger Sherman, an indisputably pious man who was the second oldest member. The delegates did not act on the suggestion, but Madison nevertheless suggested that God was involved in the proceedings. In Federalist #37, he wrote: “It is impossible, for the man of pious reflection, not to perceive in it [the Constitutional Convention] a finger of that Almighty Hand, which has been so frequently and signally extended to our relief in the critical stages of the revolution.”[12]

Of course, one could argue that Franklin and Madison were referring to God’s intervention merely for rhetorical purposes. There is little doubt that similar statements by Paine and Jefferson are best understood in this way. Yet it is abundantly clear that Washington, Adams, Hamilton, and, at the end of his life, Franklin, believed that God regularly intervenes in the affairs of men and nations.[13] Thus, using the common definition of deism, it is difficult for a careful scholar to identify more than a handful of civic leaders who may accurately be categorized as deists.

Recognizing this reality, some authors have proposed a definition of deism that permits God to intervene in the affairs of men and nations, sometimes referred to as “soft deism,” “warm deism,” or “providential deism.” If we accept this revised definition and ignore the lack of evidence that Washington, Madison, and Hamilton rejected orthodox Christianity, we might make a case that the eight founders referenced above were some sort of deists. Yet if these men were not representative of other founders, this finding suggests little with respect to the founding generation.

Consider the background and experiences of the founders regularly called deists. Washington, Jefferson, and Madison were elite southern Anglican plantation owners. Hamilton was born and raised in the British West Indies, and Paine was born and raised in England, and he lived only twenty of his seventy-two years in America. Paine came from a Quaker background, and as adults Hamilton and Franklin were nominal Anglicans. In an era where few people travelled internationally, Jefferson and Adams spent significant time in Europe, and Franklin lived most of the last thirty-five years of his life in Britain and France. The only life-long member of a Reformed (Calvinist) church among these founders is John Adams (but he is not a good representative of this tradition).

By way of contrast, in his magisterial history of religion in America, Sydney Ahlstrom observed that the Reformed tradition was “the religious heritage of three-fourths of the American people in 1776.”[14] Similarly, Yale historian Harry Stout states that prior to the War for Independence “the vast majority of colonists were Reformed or Calvinist.” [15] With the exception of Adams, these Americans are unrepresented by the handful of founders regularly discussed by those who contend the founders were deists. In social science lingo, these eight founders are an unrepresentative sample.

In the final analysis, there is no reason to conclude that “most” or even “many” of America’s founders were deists. This is not to say that they were all orthodox Christians. There is abundant evidence that Samuel Adams, Patrick Henry, John Jay, Roger Sherman, Oliver Ellsworth, John Witherspoon, and many others embraced and articulated orthodox Christian views. But the lack of records makes it difficult to speak with confidence with respect to some founders. Accordingly, I do not argue that most of America’s founders were orthodox Christians. Instead, in my book and below, I focus on the influence of Christian ideas on America’s founders.[16]

Christianity and America’s Constitutional Order

Scholars and popular writers regularly assert, in the words of Isaac Kramnick and R. Laurence Moore, that the “U.S. Constitution, drafted in 1787 and ratified in 1788, is a godless document.”[17] If by this they mean simply that God is not referenced in the text of the Constitution, they may have a point. But it is a trivial one.

Article VII proclaims that the Constitution was framed “by the unanimous consent of the States present the seventeenth day of September in the year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and eighty seven” (emphasis added), but some scholars argue that the dateline is not technically a part of the Constitution. The Constitution assumes some Christian practices, for example that the government will not operate on Sunday. Article I stipulates that “any bill not returned by the president within ten Days (Sundays excepted) … shall be law. These two provisions offer some evidence that the Constitution is not godless, but there are far better reasons for rejecting the assertion that America has a godless constitution.

Before considering the Constitution per se, we should explore a more abstract, but essential, conviction that the founders had regarding self-government. With few if any exceptions, every founding era statesman was committed to the proposition that republican government required a moral citizenry, and that religion was necessary for morality. James Hutson of the Library of Congress suggests that this argument was so widespread that it should be called the “Founding generation’s syllogism”[18]

For instance, when George Washington left the presidency he published an essay commonly known as his “Farewell Address.” In it, he observed that:

Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indisputable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duty of men and citizens… ..[19]

Examples of founders insisting that religion is necessary for morality, and that both are necessary for republican government, could be multiplied almost indefinitely. Their view was that if republican government is to work, people need to respect each other. This includes engaging in political debate with civility, treating one’s opponents with dignity, telling the truth, and the like. Equally important, religion was viewed as a source of internal control, restraining and disciplining each citizen and, thus, limiting the need of external control by civil government. A religious and therefore a moral citizenry is necessary before statesmen can even begin to think about constitutional systems.

Human Nature

In the eighteenth century, literally millions of Americans were taught to read with the Calvinist New-England Primer. In spite of its name, the textbook was used throughout America. Children learned the alphabet with a rhyme that began: “In Adam’s Fall, We sinned all.”[20] Every orthodox Christian believes that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). However, Calvinists place special emphasis on what they refer to as the doctrine of total depravity. This is particularly significant when one recalls that 50-75% of the Americans in this era were affiliated with this tradition. The vast majority of Christians also believe that even redeemed men and women continue to struggle with sin. This meant that even if elected officials are Christians, we must still be wary of political corruption and tyranny. America’s founders were convinced, as Lord Acton would later put it, that “[p]ower tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”[21]

In Federalist #51, Madison observed that, “[i]f men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external or internal controls on government would be necessary.”[22] Because he and his fellow delegates to the Constitutional Convention recognized that America would be governed by men who are not angels, they created a constitutional order characterized by federalism, the separation of powers, and checks and balances. All of these institutional arrangements were designed to prevent civic leaders from becoming corrupt and/or tyrannical.

By way of contrast, in the late eighteenth century, some European Enlightenment thinkers such as Nicolas de Condorcet were “well on their way to envisioning a benign human nature and even a perfectible one free of original sin.”[23] Practically, this led them to reject the separation of powers, checks and balances, and federalism. According to Barry Alan Shain, one of the best students of religion in the American founding, “by the 1770s, most leading Enlightenment thinkers embraced unicameralism” and many “leading lights of the Enlightenment” ridiculed American federalism.[24] In the words of the prominent historian Louis Hartz, America’s founders “refused to join in the great Enlightenment enterprise of shattering the Christian concept of sin, replacing it with an unlimited humanism, and then emerging with an earthly paradise as glittering as the heavenly one that had been destroyed.”[25] This helps explain why the constitutional order created in 1787 has been relatively successful whereas that created by the leaders of the French Revolution ended in disaster.

Natural Law and Natural Rights

America’s founders regularly appealed to natural law and natural rights, but they seldom addressed these subjects in a systematic manner. The most prominent exception to this rule is found in Supreme Court Justice James Wilson’s 1790-92 law lectures at the College of Philadelphia (now the University of Pennsylvania). Sounding much like St. Thomas Aquinas, Wilson observed that there are two types of law: divine and human. He went on to explain that there are four “species” of divine law: eternal law, celestial law, natural physical laws, and natural moral laws. Like Aquinas, he thought that human law “must rest its authority, ultimately, upon the authority of that law which is divine.”[26] Practically, this led him (and all but one Supreme Court Justice prior to John Marshall) to publicly assert that the Supreme Court could strike down an act of Congress if it violated natural law.[27]

Wilson followed Aquinas in many respects, but unlike him he offered a rich account of the natural rights possessed by individuals.[28] He argued that because natural rights are based on natural law, they exist prior to government. Protecting these rights is any government’s most important responsibility. He asked rhetorically:

What was the primary and principal object in the institution of government? Was it—I speak of the primary and principal object—was it to acquire new rights by a human establishment? Or was it, by a human establishment, to acquire a new security for the possession or the recovery of those rights, to the enjoyment or acquisition of which we were previously entitled by the immediate gift, or by the unerring law, of our all-wise and all-beneficent Creator? The latter, I presume, was the case.[29]

A commitment to individual rights and the belief that rulers are sinful and fallible naturally leads to the question of how rights can be protected against political authorities. We have already seen several answers to this problem, including fostering a virtuous citizenry, federalism, separation of powers, and checks and balances. Another important protection is a statutory or constitutional delineation of rights that may not be infringed by the government. One of the chief reasons the founders added the Bill of Rights to the Constitution was to ensure that the natural rights of Americans would not be infringed upon by the national government.

Imago Dei and the Right to Life

I cannot discuss every natural right valued by the founders here, but a brief consideration of the founders’ understanding of the rights to life and religious liberty is illustrative. America’s founders were committed to the core Christian idea that all humans are created in theimago Dei—the image of God. Part of what this means is that men and women are reasonable, creative beings. This led the founders to conclude that we the people (as opposed to merely elites) can order our public lives together through politics rather than force.

In his Supreme Court opinion in Chisholm v. Georgia (1793), Justice James Wilson, paraphrasing Psalm 139, observed that “man, fearfully and wonderfully made, is the workmanship of his all perfect Creator.”[30] He echoed this conviction in his law lectures.[31] One practical implication of this is that innocent life must always be protected. Wilson wrote with evident approval that:

With consistency, beautiful and undeviating, human life, from its commencement to its close, is protected by the common law. In the contemplation of law, life begins when the infant is first able to stir in the womb. By the law, life is protected not only from immediate destruction, but from every degree of actual violence, and in some cases, from every degree of danger.[32]

Based on this principle, Wilson criticized ancient societies, such as Sparta, Athens, China, and Rome, for the practice of exposing or killing unwanted infants.[33] Like most Christian legal theorists, he condemned suicide because:

it was not by his own voluntary act that the man made his appearance upon the theatre of life; he cannot, therefore, plead the right of the nation, by his own voluntary act to make his exit. He did not make; therefore, he has no right to destroy himself. He alone, whose gift this state of existence is, has the right to say when and how it shall receive its termination.[34]

Religious Liberty for All

Scholars and activists routinely assert that the Enlightenment inspired civic leaders in the west to adopt religious toleration. They came to value reason over revelation, and so concluded that it is irrational to kill or persecute in the name of God. [35] Some thinkers may have made claims along these lines, but the Enlightenment work on religious toleration most influential in America was John Locke’s A Letter Concerning Toleration. In it, he made arguments that drew from, and were thoroughly compatible with, Protestant Christianity.[36] Indeed, Locke’s Letter became popular in America in the 1740s when it was used by theological conservatives to argue for the freedom to preach their convictions and form their own churches.[37]

But John Locke did not invent religious toleration. As Robert Louis Wilken demonstrates in Liberty in the Things of God: The Christian Origins of Religious Freedom,[38] Christian leaders were advocating religious toleration since at least the time of the early church father Tertullian. Once they gained political power, Christian civic and ecclesiastical leaders often did not heed these calls. Fortunately, in the seventeenth century Roger Williams, John Owen, William Penn, and a host of other Christians developed powerful biblical and theological arguments for robustly protecting “the sacred right of conscience.”[39]

Civic and ecclesiastical leaders in the founding era continued to make such arguments. For instance, in 1776, the Presbyterians of Hanover County, Virginia sent a memorial to the General Assembly asserting that

if mankind were left in the quiet possession of their unalienable religious privileges, Christianity, as in the days of the Apostles, would continue to prevail and flourish in the greatest purity, by its own native excellence, and under the all-disposing providence of God.[40]

These believers made a variety of arguments in favor of religious liberty and against religious establishments, but like virtually everyone advocating for these positions a key contention was that religious liberty causes Christianity to flourish and to be purer. In like manner, the future Supreme Court Justice James Iredell remarked in North Carolina’s Ratifying Convention that it:

would be happy for mankind if religion was permitted to take its own course, and maintain itself by the excellence of its own doctrines. The divine Author of our religion never wished for its support by world authority. Has he not said that the gates of hell shall not prevail against it [Matthew 16: 18]? It made much greater progress for itself, than when supported by the greatest authority upon earth.[41]

One of the most important founding era arguments in favor of religious liberty was based on the theological principle that humans have a duty to worship God as their consciences dictate. A fine example of this is George Mason’s 1776 draft of Article XVI of Virginia’s Declaration of Rights, which reads:

That as religion, or the duty which we owe to our divine and omnipotent Creator, and the manner of discharging it, can be governed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence; and therefore that all men should enjoy the fullest toleration in the exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience, unpunished and unrestrained by the magistrate….[42]

Mason’s draft of Article XVI was reprinted throughout the states and had an important impact on subsequent state constitutions and the national Bill of Rights. But it was not the draft that became law. James Madison, in his first significant public act, did not deny that all humans have a duty to worship God, but he objected to the use of “toleration” in the article, presumably because he thought that it implied that religious liberty was a grant from the state that could be revoked. The Virginia Convention agreed, and Article XVI was amended to make it clear that “the free exercise of religion” is a right, not a privilege granted by the state.[43]

America’s founders were profoundly influenced by Christianity, but they did not design a constitutional order only for fellow believers. The Constitution prohibits religious tests for federal offices, and the founders recognized that doing so would permit “a Papist or Infidel” or “pagans, deists, and Mahometans” to be elected.[44] And they understood that people of all faiths should enjoy religious liberty.

Consider, for instance, George Washington’s 1790 letter to the “Hebrew Congregation” in Newport, Rhode Island. He wrote to this tiny religious minority that:

All [citizens] possess alike liberty and conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.

… May the Children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid. May the father of all mercies scatter light and not darkness in our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in his own due time and way everlastingly happy.[45]

This letter, from the era’s one indispensable man, reflects well the founders’ understanding that the religious convictions of all citizens must be respected. Yet it also illustrates the reality that they did not think that religion must be driven from the public square. This single letter contains nine biblical allusions, including to Micah 4:4, which reads “while everyone shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.” This was one of George Washington’s favorite verses; we have records of him quoting or paraphrasing it at least 40 times.[46]


In his law lectures, James Wilson observed that “of all governments, those are the best, which, by the natural effect of their constitutions, are frequently renewed or drawn back to their first principles.”[47] Christian commitments led the founders to create a constitutional order that strictly limits the power of the national government, separates the powers it does have among different branches, and provides checks and balances to prevent any one institution or person from becoming tyrannical. They believed in a higher law, often called natural law, and they thought that natural rights were based upon this law. Governments certainly should not violate these rights, and, indeed, many founders thought that the primary role of government is to secure “those rights, to the enjoyment or acquisition of which we were previously entitled by the immediate gift, or by the unerring law, of our all-wise and all-beneficent Creator.”[48] We would do well to heed the founders’ insights today.


[1] These were not the only ends of government, and the founders understood liberty to be constrained by natural law. See, Mark David Hall, Did America Have a Christian Founding?: Separating Modern Myth from Historical Truth (Nashville: Nelson Books, 2019), 21-56.

[2] Andrew Seidel, The Founding Myth: Why Christian Nationalism is Un-American (New York: Sterling, 2019).

[3] Matthew Stewart, Nature’s God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic (New York: W.W. Norton, 2014), 147-48.

[4] Frank Lambert,The Founding Fathers and the Place of Religion in America(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003), 161.

[5] Geoffrey R. Stone, “The World of the Framers: A Christian Nation?”University of California Law Review, 56 (October 2008), 7–8.

[6] Richard T. Hughes, Myths America Lives By (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003), 50. I give many more examples of authors making this sort of claim in Did America Have a Christian Founding?, 2, 166-67.

[7] Of course, the founders drew from a variety of intellectual traditions, some of which are more or less compatible with orthodox Christianity. These include Lockean liberalism, classical republicanism, the Scottish Enlightenment, and the common law.

[8] I do not replace “men” here or elsewhere in this essay with gender-neutral equivalents because it would be anachronistic to do so.

[9] Alan Wolfe, review of David L. Holmes, The Faiths of the Founding Fathers, Peter R. Henriques, Realistic Visionary, and Jon Meacham, American Gospel in The New York Times Review of Books (May 7, 2006), available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/05/07/books/review/07wolfe.html (accessed February 16, 2018). There is no single definition of “deism,” but the one offered above is widely used. Compare with Christopher Grasso, Skepticism and American Faith: From the Revolution to the Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018), 26 (“‘Deism’ is usually associated with belief in a noninterventionist Creator, reliance upon what reason can discern in the natural world, and skepticism about miracles, mysticism, the divine inspiration of the scriptures, and the divinity of Christ”). See also Seidel, The Founding Myth, 70, and Susan Jacoby’s foreword to The Founding Myth, viii.

[10] Lambert, Founding Fathers, 176.

[11] Daniel L. Dreisbach and Mark David Hall, eds. The Sacred Rights of Conscience: Selected Readings on Religious Liberty and Church-State Relations in the American Founding (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund Press, 2009), 348-49 (emphasis in original).

[12] Ibid., 351. Despite this reference to the Deity, and three mentions of “Providence” in Federalist #2, Isaac Kramnick and R. Laurence Moore still assert that The Federalist Papers “fail to mention God anywhere.” Kramnick and Moore, The Godless Constitution (New York: Norton, 1996), 31.

[13] Hall, Did America Have a Christian Founding?, 3-19.

[14] Sydney E. Ahlstrom, A Religious History of the American People (Garden City: Doubleday, 1975), 1: 426.

[15] Harry S. Stout, “Preaching the Insurrection,” Christian History 15 (1996), 17. I discuss the influence of Reformed political thought on America’s founders in Mark David Hall, Roger Sherman and the Creation of the American Republic (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013).

[16] None of the Christian ideas discussed in this essay are “uniquely” or “distinctly” Christian. But in late-eighteenth century America, the founders’ religious views are the most reasonable explanation for why they embraced these positions.

[17] Kramnick and Moore, The Godless Constitution, 27.

[18] James Hutson, Religion and the Founding of the American Republic (Washington, DC: Library of Congress, 1998), 81. By “religion,” virtually all of them meant Christianity. See Did America Have a Christian Founding?, 31-32.

[19] Dreisbach and Hall, Sacred Rights, 468 (emphasis in original).

[20] The New England Primer, ed. Paul Leicester Ford (1717; Reprint: New York: Dodd, Mead, and Co. 1897), 65.

[21] Lord Acton to Mandell Creighton, April 5, 1887, published inHistorical Essays and Studies, ed. J. N. Figgis and R. V. Laurence (London: Macmillan, 1907), 504.

[22] Available at: https://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/fed51.asp (accessed May 10, 2020). Of course the founders read and referenced Montesquieu. They did so because he offered practical solutions to a basic Christian problem—human sinfulness.

[23] Barry Alan Shain, “Afterword: Revolutionary-Era Americans: Were They Enlightened or Protestant? Does it Matter?” in Daniel L. Dreisbach, Mark D. Hall, and Jeffry H. Morrison, eds., The Founders on God and Government (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2004), 275. There were, of course, different Enlightenments, some of which were more compatible with orthodox Christianity than others.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Louis Hartz, “American Political Thought and the American Revolution,” American Political Science Review, 46 (June 1952), 324.

[26] Kermit L. Hall and Mark David Hall, ed., Collected Works of James Wilson (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund Press, 2007), 498.

[27] Scott Douglas Gerber, ed.,Seriatim: The Early Supreme Court(New York: New York University Press, 1998).

[28] Hall and Hall, Collected Works, 498.

[29] Ibid., 1053-1054

[30] Chisholm v. Georgia, 2 U.S. 419 (1792); available in Hall and Hall, Collected Works, 353.

[31] Hall and Hall, Collected Works, 590.

[32] Ibid., 1068.

[33] Ibid., 1067.

[34] Ibid. 534. The conviction that all humans are created in the image of God led many founders to oppose the institution of slavery. I will discuss this issue at length in the sequel to Did America Have a Christian Founding?

[35] For examples, see Did America Have a Christian Founding?, 122, 202.

[36] John Locke, A Letter Concerning Toleration and Other Writings, ed. Mark Goldie (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund Press, 2010). There are extensive debates about Locke’s theological convictions and whether or not his social and political ideas are compatible with orthodox Christianity. I cannot engage this literature here, but I will state my view that Locke was not an orthodox Christian but that his social and political views are compatible with orthodox Christianity.

[37] Hall, Roger Sherman, 20-27, esp. 22.

[38] Robert Louis Wilken, Liberty in the Things of God: The Christian Origins of Religious Freedom (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019). John Witte, Jr., emphasizes Calvinist contributions to the development of freedom of conscience in The Reformation of Rights: Law, Religion, and Human Rights in Early Modern Calvinism (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007).

[39] Wilken, Liberty in the Things of God, 155-183; Hall, Did America Have a Christian Founding?, 121-147; Andrew R. Murphy, Conscience and Community: Revisiting Toleration and Religious Dissent in Early Modern England and America (University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2001).

[40] Dreisbach and Hall, Sacred Rights, 270.

[41] Ibid., 395.

[42] Ibid., 241.

[43] Ibid.

[44] Ibid., 388, 394.

[45] Ibid, 464.

[46] Peter A. Lillback and Jerry Newcombe, George Washington’s Sacred Fire (Bryn Mawr: Providence Forum Press, 2006), 321-22; Daniel L. Dreisbach, Reading the Bible with the Founding Fathers (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 211-227. For further evidence that the founders did not desire to strictly separate church and state, see Hall, Did America Have a Christian Founding? chapters three and four.

[47] Hall and Hall, Collected Works, 1: 698.

[48] Ibid., 1053-1054.

The Conversation

Responses to the Panel on Deism, Orthodoxy, and the American Founding

I am grateful for the responses to my essay by Professors Allen, Kidd, and Green. I’ll briefly address comments about the founders and deism here, and then engage other issues after Independence Day.

Professor Allen suggests that I “conflate two quite different questions in [my] essay: first, whether the United States had a Christian founding, and second, whether the majority of the founders were, like the vast majority of the population at that time, believing Christians.” Similarly, Professor Green believes that I reason from the “ubiquity of religious trappings during the founding period” to the conclusion “that Christian ideas significantly influenced the thinking of the founders in ways that impacted the founding documents.”

Contrary to Professors Allen and Green, I am not conflating anything, but instead answer two separate questions. Jason Kuznicki, editor of Cato Unbound, asked me to write a short essay on “the religious beliefs of the American founders and why these beliefs still matter today.” In “Proclaim Liberty Throughout All the Land,” I address each issue in turn.

I could have described the religious beliefs of America’s founders simply by observing, like Professor Allen, that “the majority of the founders were, like the vast majority of the population at that time, believing Christians.” But, as I acknowledge in my essay, such a fact “is not particularly useful. These citizens may have been Christians significantly influenced by non-Christian ideas, or they may have been Christians self-consciously attempting to create a secular political order.”

(Ironically, Professor Allen concedes more than I argue. I write that “virtually every American of European descent in the founding era … identified himself or herself as a Christian.” But some citizens might have done so to conform to societal expectations, not because they were “believing Christians.”)

Rather than simply state the uncontroversial fact that virtually all late eighteenth century Americans identified themselves as Christians, I chose to address the common assertion that “most” or “many” of America’s founders were deists. Far too many sensible scholars make these or similar claims, including Professor Allen (“The Founding Fathers were … skeptical men of the Enlightenment who questioned each and every received idea they had been taught”) and Professor Green (“Although many of the nation’s elites privately embraced deism, The Age of Reason and other works popularized irreligion among the laboring and working classes”).[1]

In addition to Professors Allen and Green, academic and popular authors including Gordon Wood, Geoffrey Stone, Richard Hughes, Frank Lambert, Matthew Stewart, R. Lawrence Moore, Isaac Kramnick, Garry Wills, Steven Keillor, Richard Dawkins, and many others have claimed that America’s founders were deists.[2] Because this assertion is so widespread, it seemed worthwhile to set the historical record straight. In my short essay, and in Did America Have a Christian Founding?, I offer excellent reasons for rejecting this error. That Professors Allen and Green do not even attempt to refute my arguments suggest that I have succeeded.

Thomas Kidd agrees that the “textbook meaning of a deist, as Hall notes, is a person who believes theoretically in God as creator but not in God’s providential role in human history. If we stick with that definition, then there were almost no deists in Revolutionary America, save perhaps for radical skeptics like Ethan Allen and Tom Paine.” He goes on to observe that the “problem is that people in eighteenth-century Anglo-America did not always use our textbook definition of a deist.” I agree, and so discuss another common definition of deism, one that allows God to intervene in the affairs of men and nations. I argue that even using this definition, there is no good reason to conclude that America’s founders were deists.

Professor Kidd points out that “deism” could mean a variety of other things. For instance, it could be a charge leveled against someone “critical of Reformed theology and its emphasis on humankind’s lack of free will.” This may well be the case, but in late eighteenth century America, the subject of my essay, “deism” is virtually always used in one of the two ways I define it in my work. With few exceptions, scholars and popular authors writing about this era adopt one of these two definitions, including writers as diverse as Alan Wolfe, Christopher Grasso, Andrew Seidel, and Susan Jacoby. Perhaps Professor Kidd is suggesting that we reject “deism” as a useless concept, but if he is not it seems most reasonable to utilize the two common definitions discussed in my essay (perhaps acknowledging in a footnote that there are other possible meanings of the term).

After establishing that there is no good reason to conclude that “many” or “most” of America’s founders were deists, I state that “I do not argue that most of America’s founders were orthodox Christians.” I never rely on the religiosity of America’s founders to prove anything. Instead, in the second part of my essay, I “focus on the influence of Christian ideas on America’s founders.” I’ll turn to these arguments after July 4.


[1] Brooke Allen, Moral Minority: Our Skeptical Founding Fathers (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2006), xiii; Steven K. Green, The Second Disestablishment: Church and State in Nineteenth-Century America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 87.

[2] Mark David Hall, Did America Have a Christian Founding (Nashville: Nelson Books, 2019), 168-69.

The Religious Beliefs of the Founders Don’t Always Fit in Present-Day Categories

I agree with most of Professor Kidd’s observations. As I suggested in my essay, we should resist forcing twenty-first century categorizations about belief onto those leaders of the founding generation who were, by all accounts, complex individuals. The presence of Christianity (Protestantism) in the founding culture was ubiquitous, so commentators should resist attempts to segregate its religious aspects from its secular ones. All of the founders were religiously literate—something that stands in stark contrast to many political leaders today—and were comfortable discussing religious ideas. But they were also synthesizers of Enlightenment rationalism and Whig political theories. Professor Kidd and I agree that “deism” was a broad and ill-defined perspective, at least its American variant. That’s why I prefer—like Professor Kidd—to consider figures like Washington and Jefferson theistic rationalists. But they were not conventional Christians.

Where Professor Kidd and I may disagree (slightly) is over the proposition that, as he writes, “faith played a powerful shaping role in the American founding.” That statement can mean several things. Certainly, as I wrote, religion shaped people’s attitudes (as much as I might try, I will never be able to shake off my evangelical upbringing), but it doesn’t necessarily mean it shaped the outcomes they sought in creating the new republican state and federal governments. As students of history, they understood the divisive role that religion had played in the political realm. Their rationalist leanings led them to ground the authority for government in Enlightenment notions of natural rights and the consent of the governed, not in some higher authority.

The Founders Read the Bible. But They Also Read David Hume.

Steven Green writes with great common sense and a refreshing absence of ideology. He makes a very important point: that the founders, like the rest of the American public, were “religiously literate,” steeped in biblical lore and language. The Bible and the stories in it were the common possession of pretty much the entire American public to a degree that is hardly comprehensible today. Biblical analogy was the most obvious method for eighteenth-century politicians to communicate with the people, and as Dr. Green points out, they all did it, even those who had private doubts: thus, George Washington’s fondness for Micah’s image of the vine and the fig tree tells us nothing about Washington’s personal beliefs but a great deal about his ability to communicate in a manner that would move his audience. In today’s culture such a rhetorical reliance on scripture would be impossible, not only because secularists would take exception but because large swathes of the public, including (especially?) highly educated people, have little to no knowledge of the Bible. A modern politician is far more likely to draw analogies from football or baseball, or from some very familiar cultural product like Star Wars or Harry Potter, than from scripture. Insofar as we have a common culture anymore, sports and entertainment are the things that constitute it.

Dr. Green is also right, I think, when he states that the fact that “religion influenced the founders’ thinking, or that they used common religious terms in their writings, indicates little about their personal devotion or the degree to which they intended to incorporate Christian principles into the organs of government they helped create,” and that “Enlightenment rationalism and secular Whig political ideas” were also highly significant to the founders and their theories of government. And he does well to remind us that it is very, very difficult to “fit” individual founders into any modern religious category, and probably pointless to try.

Thomas Kidd makes exactly the same point in his response: “the debate about deism runs into conceptual dead ends, partly because our classic definition of a deist doesn’t serve us well historically.” But Dr. Kidd falls into the same trap that I feel Dr. Hall did, in asserting that the rhetorical use of scripture at that time is proof, or at least a strong indication, of belief. Does Jefferson’s reference, during his second inaugural address, to the Israelites and providence mean that he himself believed in this history? Dr. Kidd claims that “Jefferson likely believed what he was saying.” Really? A perusal of Jefferson’s private correspondence would lead one to think otherwise. “Similarly,” Dr. Kidd claims, “Jefferson really believed that God had created all men equal and given them their unalienable rights. (What he meant by ‘all men’ is hugely controversial.)” I would add that what he meant by “God” is also controversial, and that in fact he wrote that men were endowed with their unalienable rights by “their Creator.” When the word “God” does appear in the text of the Declaration it is in the phrase “Nature and Nature’s God,” which literate people of that time would have understood as a being quite different from the jealous Jehovah of the Old Testament. And when Dr. Kidd writes that Jefferson “was fascinated with Jesus and with the New Testament” I would venture that he was particularly fascinated with Jesus’s remarkable takeover of the Western world: Jefferson himself privately referred to Christianity as “our particular superstition” and, in a remarkable letter to his nephew, urged the young man to read the Bible with the detachment of a scholar. “Shake off all the fears, and servile prejudices, under which weak minds are servilely crouched. Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion…Read the Bible, then, as you would read Livy or Tacitus. The facts which are within the ordinary course of nature, you will believe on the authority of the writer, as you do those of the same kind in Livy and Tacitus….But those facts in the Bible which contradict the laws of nature, must be examined with more care, and under a variety of faces. Here you must recur to the pretensions of the writer to inspiration from God. Examine upon what evidence his pretensions are founded, and whether that evidence is so strong, as that its falsehood would be more improbable than a change in the laws of nature…” Straight David Hume.

I have not read Dr. Kidd’s book on Franklin, but I was very surprised when he wrote that “Franklin was trending back toward his parents’ traditional faith” in old age. His parents’ traditional faith was a staunch Presbyterianism. Franklin’s famous letter to Dr. Ezra Stiles, written just a few weeks before his death in 1790, deserves extensive quotation. While I agree with Drs. Green and Kidd that it is not easy to assign people of the eighteenth century to modern religious categories, the personal creed that Franklin lays out here is a very far cry indeed from the strict Calvinism in which he was brought up:

Here is my creed. I believe in one God, Creator of the universe. That he governs it by his providence. That he ought to be worshipped. That the most acceptable service we render to him is doing good to his other children. That the soul of Man is immortal, and will be treated with justice in another life respecting its conduct in this. These I take to be the fundamental points in all sound religion, and I regard them as you do in whatever sect I meet with them.

As for Jesus of Nazareth, my opinion of whom you particularly desire, I think his system of morals and his religion, as he left them to us, the best the world ever saw or is likely to see; but I apprehend it has received various corrupting changes, and I have, with most of the present dissenters in England, some doubts as to his divinity; though it is a question that I do not dogmatize upon, having never studied it, and think it needless to busy myself with now, when I expect soon an opportunity of knowing the truth with less trouble. I see no harm, however, in its being believed, if that belief has the good consequence, as it probably has, of making his doctrines more respected and better observed, especially as I do not perceive that the Supreme takes it amiss, by distinguishing the unbelievers in his government of the world with any particular marks of his displeasure.

More Than an Academic Debate

I want to step back from this discussion to ask the more fundamental question of why this debate is so important to a segment of the U.S. population. A common response is that professional historians, many of whom have secularist leanings, have given Christianity, and its impact on our nation’s history, a short shrift, either marganalizing it or portraying it in negative terms. As a result, there is a desire to “set the record straight”—as if there is an identifiably “correct” interpretation of history that should then be embedded in perpetuity. That said, Professor Hall and his cohort of like-minded scholars have contributed to the discipline by expanding our understanding of our past and by challenging oversimplified assumptions about the nation’s founders. I chiefly disagree with the conclusions he draws.

There is a second, and darker, explanation for why a religionist interpretation of the founding is so important to some people. For many white evangelicals, it is about the privileging of a white Christian narrative about America, one that excludes or marginalizes other communities of color, gender, or religious faith. As two scholars recently described it, “the sizable portion of Americans who pine for Christianity’s former prominence in American civic life feel threatened and marginalized. They fear that their values and priorities will, at best, no longer be dominant.”[1] This is why arguments about America’s Christian nationhood resonate so strongly with white supremacists. With the nation’s increasing racial and religious diversification, many white Americans fear a loss of privilege, both ethnically and religiously. Numerous scholars have documented this rise in white Christian nationalism. I witnessed this crossover firsthand ten years ago when I testified before the Texas State Board of Education against proposed revisions to the statewide social studies curriculum. The same revisionist proponents who advocated a pro-Christian interpretation of American history also sought to expunge much of the curriculum that promoted multiculturalism.

And then, this Christian founding narrative becomes embedded in partisan politics. Just this past Sunday (June 28), Vice President Mike Pence spoke at a large “Celebrate Freedom Sunday” rally at First Baptist Church in Dallas (despite the surge in COVID-19 in Texas). Although Pence’s remarks were restrained—aside from saying that the foundation of American freedoms was faith—he strongly endorsed the pastor of First Baptist Church, Robert Jeffress, who is a leading Christian nationalist. Jeffress recently said, ”The framers of the Constitution and earliest jurists demonstrated a clear preference for Christianity. They did not hesitate to declare that America was a Christian nation.”[2] The political messaging is unmistakable.

Let me be clear, I am not suggesting that Professor Hall or his fellow scholars fall into the latter group or sympathize with them. But there is a reason why many people are interested in “rediscovering” the Christian influences on the nation’s founding and why that narrative is so important to them. This is not simply an academic debate.


[1] Andrew L. Whitehead and Samuel L. Perry, Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020), 4-5.

[2] Ibid., 4.

Calvinism and American Independence

Professor Allen writes: “Dr. Hall points out that 50-75% of Americans during the founding era were Calvinists … [b]ut once again, ‘the founders’ and ‘the American people’ are not at all the same thing.” It is certainly true that not all founders were Calvinists, but many of them were, and they drew from a tradition of political reflection that encouraged them to actively resist tyrants.

Let’s begin by considering just one Reformed founder, Connecticut’s Roger Sherman. Sherman was the only statesman to help draft and sign the Declaration and Resolves (1774), the Articles of Association (1774), the Declaration of Independence (1776), the Articles of Confederation (1777, 1778), and the Constitution (1787). He served longer in the Continental and Confederation Congresses than all but four men, and he was regularly appointed to key committees, including those charged with drafting the Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation. At the Constitutional Convention, Sherman often outmaneuvered Madison and, according to David Brian Robertson, the “political synergy between Madison and Sherman … may have been necessary for the Constitution’s adoption.”[i] He was also a representative and senator in the new republic where he played a major role in drafting the Bill of Rights. And unlike many of the more “Enlightened” founders favored by Professor Allen, Sherman never owned a slave, and he co-authored a law that put slavery in Connecticut on the path to extinction.[ii]

American patriots drew from a rich and deep tradition of Calvinist thought concerning when tyrants may be justly resisted. Traditionally, many Christians understood Romans 13 to prohibit active resistance to tyrants. Reformers rejected this approach and developed a resistance ideology unlike anything ever seen on a widespread level in Christendom. John Calvin (1509–1564), one of the most politically conservative of the Reformers, contended that in some cases inferior magistrates may resist a tyrant. However, contemporary and later Calvinists including John Knox (1505–72), George Buchanan (1506–82), Samuel Rutherford (1600–1661), Theodore Beza (1519–1605), David Pareus (1548–1622), Christopher Goodman (1520–1603), John Ponet (1516–1556), and the author of Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos argued that inferior magistrates must resist unjust rulers and even permitted or required privatecitizens to do so.[iii] Note that all of these men were advocating active resistance to tyrants well before John Locke published hisSecond Treatise on Government.

John Adams was raised in the Reformed tradition, but as an adult he was neither a Calvinist nor an orthodox Christian. But he acknowled the influence of the Reformed tradition. In 1787, he wrote that John Ponet’s Short Treatise on Politike Power (1556) contains “all the essential principles of liberty, which were afterwards dilated on by Sidney and Locke.” He also noted the significance of Stephanus Junius Brutus’ Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos.[iv] Later in life, Adams wrote: “I love and revere the memories of Huss, Wickliff, Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Melancton, and all the other Reformers, how muchsoever I may differ from them all in many theological metaphysical & philosophical points. As you justly observe, without their great exertions & severe sufferings, the USA had never existed.”[v]

The patriots received almost universal support from Calvinist ministers. This support was noted by the other side, including the loyalist Peter Oliver who railed against the “black Regiment, the dissenting Clergy, who took so active a part in the Rebellion.”[vi] King George himself reportedly referred to the War for Independence as “a Presbyterian Rebellion.”[vii] From the English perspective, British Major Harry Rooke was basically correct when he confiscated a presumably Calvinist book from an American prisoner and remarked that “[i]t is your G-d Damned Religion of this Country that ruins the Country; Damn your religion.”[viii]

The Reformed tradition is not well represented among the handful of founders considered by those who deny that America had a Christian founding. But it is very well represented among the men who served in the Continental, Confederation, and first federal Congresses, the state ratifying conventions, and the state legislatures that approved the Bill of Rights. Moreover, if we consider individuals who contributed to debates over American independence and the formation of our constitutional republic who did not hold political office, we can expand the definition of “founder” to include women such as Abigail Adams and Mercy Otis Warren.[ix] Anyone who desires an accurate account of the founding era cannot afford to simply dismiss the influence of the Calvinism and the Reformed tradition of political reflection.


[i] David Brian Robertson, “Madison’s Opponents and Constitutional Design,” American Political Science Review, 99 (May 2005): 225–243, 242.

[ii] Mark David Hall, Roger Sherman and the Creation of the American Republic (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013).

[iii] Sarah Morgan Smith and I provide an overview of these developments in “Whose Rebellion? Reformed Resistance Theory in America, part 2,” Unio cum Christo 4 (April 2018), 171-188 and “Whose Rebellion? Reformed Resistance Theory in America, part 1,” Unio cum Christo 3 (October 2017), 169-184.

[iv] Charles Francis Adams, ed., The Works of John Adams (Boston: Charles C. Little and James Brown, 1850), 6: 4.

[v] John Adams to F. C. Schaeffer, November 25, 1821, in James Hutson, ed., The Founders on Religion: A Book of Quotations (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), 15–16.

[vi] Douglass Adair and John A. Schutz, eds.,Peter Oliver’s Origin and Progress of the American Rebellion(Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1961), 41.

[vii] Paul Johnson,A History of the American People(New York: HarperCollins, 1997), 173.

[viii] John Leach, “A Journal Kept by John Leach, During His Confinement by the British, In Boston Gaol, in 1775,”The New England Historical and Genealogical Register 19 (1865), 256.

[ix] See essays on these two fascinating founders by Edith B. Gelles and Rosemarie Zagarri in The

Forgotten Founders on Religion and Public Life, ed. Daniel L. Dreisbach, Mark David Hall,

And Jeffry H. Morrison (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2009).